This month we're going waaay back in time, to the magical year of 1999. People were already stocking up on K-rations, firearms, and cash, preparing for the Y2K catastrophe that never came. 1999 had so many expectations—Prince had been telling us for years that we should "party like it's 1999" but that was tempered by our fear that once December 31st ended and the year rolled into double zeros, all our financial systems would crash and burn. TIME magazine had Monica Lewinsky on the cover of their March 15, 1999, issue, and Whitney Houston was alive and well, and had the #2 hit on the music charts (for "Heartbreak Hotel").
So, what were the big books this time twenty years ago? Here are a few that grabbed my attention:
The case that captured the attention of millions. A beautiful six-year-old girl named JonBenét Ramsey was found murdered in her basement on Christmas in 1996. It was incredibly sad and also terrifying--how the hell could this happen? In his book, Lawrence Schiller delves into the case, the interviews, the evidence, and the speculation. What's particularly fascinating about looking back at this book is that here we are, 20 years later, and the crime is still unsolved. At the time, the Ramseys clammed up and got a lawyer fast, and the public considered that a sign of guilt. I think now we know better—that was good, smart self-preservation. Just this year there's been a new development in the JonBenét Ramsey case: a piece in Rolling Stone cites a possible suspect who is currently serving time for peddling child pornography. Maybe this will be another cold case solved with controversial modern technology (a la the Golden State Killer).
Written by a German law professor and judge, The Reader was translated into English and published in the U.S. in 1997. So what made it a big book in early 1999? OPRAH. The novel centers around a May-December love affair between a 15-year-old boy named Michael and Hanna, a woman twice his age. One day Hanna is just gone and the two don't see each other again until years later when he is a law student and she is on trial for Nazi war crimes. The Reader is remarkable storytelling—powerful, passionate, thought-provoking—and in 1999 it became an Oprah's Book Club selection. Schlink has since published two other books, but neither achieved the same level of readership as his first. We still can't get enough of WWII novels though, most recently falling hard for The Tattooist of Auschwitz.
This is Grisham's tenth novel and dubbed his "jungle adventure" in the New York Times online book review. The story is about a billionaire who shocks his relatives by leaving his entire fortune to a mysterious woman living somewhere in the Brazilian jungle. Okay, in hindsight perhaps The Testament is not Grisham's best, but it's still a good beach read, and as with his books before (and since) The Testament certainly took it's place on the bestseller lists in 1999. Two decades later, Grisham is still going strong and writing great legal thrillers. I hadn't read him in a while but picked up The Reckoning last year and was glad I did, though his first few will always be my favorites. (If you haven't read The Firm or A Time to Kill, the movies are good but the books are better.) And P.S.: The Reckoning is Grisham's 40th book.